Core Curriculum Preceptors: TC Students Share Their Story ☆

Created in the immediate aftermath of World War I as a Peace Studies program, Columbia College’s Core Curriculum is the oldest of its kind in the country. Designed as a set of common courses required of all undergraduates, the Core’s hallmarks are communal learning (with all students encountering the same texts and issues concurrently) and critical dialogue experienced in small seminars. To fulfill the Core requirement, students take Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, World Culture, Frontiers of Science, plus either Asian Humanities or African Literature.

TC Ph.D. candidates have recently been involved with the Core, in coveted two year positions as preceptors. Givanni Ildefonso (Philosophy and Education) and Jay Shuttleworth (Social Studies and Education) just began their terms (Contemporary Civilization and Literary Humanities preceptors, respectively), while Cristina Cammarano completed her term as a Literature Humanities preceptor in spring 2011, and is currently an instructor in the Arts and Humanities Department at TC.

Becoming a preceptor involves a rigorous application and selection process: The request goes out to all Doctoral candidates in the final stage of their dissertations at Columbia University GSAS and affiliate schools. A huge pool of applicants is whittled down after a first round based on a cover letter and recommendations. The second round includes an interview by committee. Ildefonso recalls leaving her interview wanting the role so badly she’d have taken it for no salary and Cammarano adds, “It is very difficult to get the job.”

Once chosen, the role of preceptor demands a major time commitment: initiates begin with a six-hour daily summer boot camp. “We went through all the books, talked about teaching strategies and pedagogical approaches and materials. The training was substantial,” Shuttleworth states.

As support throughout the year, preceptors meet for three hours every Tuesday with fellow preceptors to discuss that week’s curriculum, and then to listen to a lecture by an expert on the material on both content and how he or she would teach the book. These multiple perspectives are a boon, as Ildefonso explains: “The beauty is that you have people from all sorts of backgrounds participating. It is good for us in the discussions, and ultimately for our students.”

So many years after its inception, is the Core still relevant? Absolutely, Cammarano, Ildefonso and Shuttleworth insist. Cammarano sees the program’s value in the potential to open students’ eyes to new avenues. She has seen freshmen, “fragile” in their sense of academic identity, complete the Core and change their direction: “This course has helped me think through my life” and “It has opened possibilities for my studies” are two examples of the positive experiences her students have shared with her. Personally, teaching the course helps her on a “meta-level” as she thinks philosophically about the dimensions of education and is asked to consider what an educated individual should know and

Ildefonso feels students reading the canon together is an “amazing” undertaking. “I want them to feel they are part of a conversation that began more than 2,000 years ago and is still relevant today,” adding that the texts students read provide a vital humanistic orientation, bound together by the idea of how to live, and how to live well. She thrives on the conversations in class and describes it as a “process of discovery every single time.”

Shuttleworth sees the Core as a chance for students to “take risks intellectually and socially in a safe environment” and an opportunity for tremendous personal growth—both for his students and for himself as an educator. He thinks an examination of the canon itself “…is worthy of discussion, since it is mostly Euro-centric and mostly male,” an
element which he found surprising but one which he ultimately can adjust with additional texts, something he has “complete latitude” to do with
the curriculum.

Academically rigorous and personally transformative for both students and educators, the Core Curriculum is now in its 93rd year at Columbia College.